Sunday, December 15, 2013

The Purge in Pyongyang

***UPDATE/17 December***

ABC News reports that Kim Jong-un's aunt, Kim Kyong-hui, is missing from the latest official potrait of DPRK leadership, taken this week at a ceremony marking the two year anniversary of Kim Jong-il's death.  Her absence suggests she has met the same fate as her husband, Jang Song-thaek, who was tried and executed earlier this month, for alleged crimes against the regime. 

If confirmed, the significance of Kim Kyong-hui's demise cannot be overstated.  She was the sister of Kim Jong-il and the only daughter of Kim Il-sung, the founder of the North Korean state.  It was tantamount to a member of Britain's royal family being tried for treason, and summarily executed.   

With the (apparent) elimination of Kim Kyong-hui, leadership in Pyongyang has coalesced around Kim Jong-un.  It is a stunning turn of events; when he was named as his father's successor, there was open speculation that the younger Kim would be unable to hold the reigns of power, or would be something of a figurehead, with Jang and his wife serving as the real power behind the throne.  Two years later, there is no doubut about who is calling the shots in North Korea.

But winning the power struggle doesn't mean that Kim Jong-un is fully prepared to run his country.  North Korea's economy remains a mess and there are genuine concerns that the third-generation dictator, brimming with over-confidence, may provoke another confrontation with South Korea and the United States.  ROK Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin described the execution of Jang as "the most important turning point" in North Korean history, and said there is a "high possibility" of North Korean provocation between January and March of next year. 

Mr. Kim did not choose those months by accident.  That period coincides with the peak of the Winter Training Cycle (WTC) by the DPRK military.  It's the time of year when North Korea's armed forces conduct the bulk of their training, culminating in a nationwide defense exercise in late March. 

The South Korean defense minister's comments suggest that analysts are expecting a busier-than-normal WTC this year.  As we've noted in the past, the WTC receives virtually no coverage in the U.S. media, which speaks volumes about the current state of national security coverage.  Perhaps someone in the Pentagon press corps will ask about those troubling comments from Seoul, and what the United States is prepared to do when that provocation comes.


It looked like something out of Iraq, shortly after Saddam Hussein seized power: a high-ranking official, accused of countless crimes, being dragged from his seat before other assembled dignitaries.  The public humiliation was quickly followed by a trial and execution, reminding all who had gathered in that hall that they served--and lived--at the dictator's discretion.

Except this episode didn't take place in Saddam's Iraq in the 1970s.  It occurred in recent days in North Korea, where the uncle of the third-generation tyrant, Kim Jong-un was sacked and put to death for a long list of alleged crimes against the state.

Jang Song-thaek was more than an apparatchik who married well (his wife is the sister of the late dictator Kim Jong-il and a powerful figure in her own right).  When Kim Jong-il suffered a debilitating stroke in 2008--and began to face his own mortality--he turned to his sister and her husband to guide Kim Jong-un during the transition period that would follow his death.

At the Weekly Standard, Korea scholar Dennis Halpin describes the critical role Jang played in mentoring his nephew--and maintaining relations with China, the ally that ultimately guarantees the survival of North Korea:

Jang’s elevated status in the new regime was confirmed when, as vice chairman of the National Defense Commission (NDC), he was dispatched in August 2012 on an official visit to China, isolated North Korea’s sole ally and guarantor. Kim Jong-un himself, in contrast, has yet to garner such an invitation to Beijing as the new leader of North Korea, although South Korean president Park Geun-hye was invited within six months of her assumption of office. Using convenient excuses, such as the Chinese leadership transition, Beijing has repeatedly rebuffed Kim Jong-un’s request to travel there. The Chinese leadership is apparently piqued by his erratic and provocative behavior, including a series of missile launches and even a nuclear test, which has embarrassed Beijing and severely disrupted Six-Party diplomacy.

But it was more than a diplomatic snub that prompted the purge of Jang Song-thaek.  Some of the charges against him (including corruption) were probably true; but Jang is one of hundreds in the DPRK's ruling plutocracy who has enriched himself at the state trough.  The ruling Kim dynasty has accumulated a family fortune that totals more than $1 billion dollars, a remarkable feat considering the economic ruin they have foisted upon North Korean, including the infamous famine of the mid-1990s that killed more than one million peasants.

Consider the example of Kim Jong-un's older brother, Kim Jong-nam.   He is best known as a high-roller customer in the casinos of Macau and for being deported from Japan, when he tried to enter that country on a forged Dominican passport.  The older Kim lives in China, sends his son to an exclusive school in Bosnia and enjoys a lavish lifestyle, despite having no apparent job.  There's every reason to believe that Kim Jong-nam is living off the spoils of the family enterprise, but there have been no calls to return him to DPRK for the same sort of reckoning that Jang Song-thaek received.  Apparently, blood is thicker than water.

So why get rid of uncle who helped secure your grasp on power?  For starters, Jang Song-thaek was reportedly estranged from his wife, Kim Kyong-hui, the paternal aunt of Kim Jong-un and a general in the North Korean Army.  Obviously, the marital tiff didn't improve Jang's standing in the family.

Then, there was Uncle Jang's reputation as China's man in Pyongyang.  According to Mr. Halpin and other analysts, Beijing saw Mr. Jang as a conduit into the highest levels of North Korean government, someone who could convey the PRC's instructions to its troublesome ally.  Getting rid of Jang was a not-so-veiled message to Beijing: Kim Jong-un is calling the shots in North Korea and resents attempts at interference.  Traditionally, the DPRK has been very careful in conveying such messages; without China's economic support and other forms of assistance, North Korea would quickly collapse.  Officially, Beijing had no reaction to Jang's execution, but Chinese military units staged an exercise near the North Korean border, just hours after the purge was announced.

Jang's demise also affirms Pyongyang's intent to continue with its failed economic policies.  Kim Jong-un's late uncle was one of the few senior leaders in the DPRK who was open to the idea of Chinese-style economic reforms.  China has been trying to goad North Korea into following its lead for more than 20 years, hoping that actual economic growth in the worker's paradise will reduce the massive subsidies Bejing pays to keep its neighbor afloat.  In the wake of recent events in Pyongyang, hopes for economic reform are as dead as their leading patron.  So, China must be prepared to keep writing those checks, or reduce the subsidies and worry about what Kim Jong-un might do next.

Ultimately, the purge of Jang Song-thaek was little more than the removal of a potential threat by a dictator consolidating his hold on power.  Jang was useful during the transition stage, but with Kim Jong-un now feeling more secure in his position, there was little reason to retain a powerful potential rival, with established ties in the military and political establishment.  More of Jang's allies will be liquidated in the coming weeks, allowing Kim Jong-un to fill their positions with individuals loyal to him.  SOP in the world's only hereditary communist regime.  There was a similar purge when Kim Jong-il took control in 1994, and the same thing will happen again when his son departs the world stage.

The danger, of course, lies in the havoc that Kim Jong-un might create in the years before that happens.  Eliminating his uncle--and other rivals--was a predictable step, though it occurred well before many observers believed it would happen.  Now the question is how far North Korea's new ruler may carry the purge.  The two-year anniversary of Kim Jong-il's death is fast approaching and there will be a state ceremony in Pyongyang.  It will be interesting to see if Kim Kyong-hui, the only daughter of Kim il-Sung and Kim Jong-un's "other" designated mentor will be on the reviewing stand. 

And beyond that, the world must contend with a youthful tyrant who is feeling his oats, and may be suffering from an extreme case of misplaced self-confidence.  Couple that with a fading America on the global scene and you've got an explosive situation in northeast Asia, one that won't change anytime soon--unless Beijing decides to reign in its client in Pyongyang.                      


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